University student online learning experiences in COVID-times

Cheryl Brown1, Ashwini Datt2, Dianne Forbes3, Dilani Gedera4, Maggie Hartnett5

1.University of Canterbury; 2. University of Auckland; 3. University of Waikato; 4. Auckland University of Technology; 5. Massey University.

Please cite as: Brown, C., Datt, A., Forbes, D., Gedera, D., & Hartnett, M. (2021). Report: University students online learning experiences in COVID-times.
(All quotes in this report are unedited to retain their authenticity)


This report summarises findings from an ethics approved, cross-institutional project focused on foregrounding student voice and experience in the shift to emergency remote learning and teaching during the pandemic. The project team worked in collaboration with student associations to invite participation in a survey exploring students’ experiences of online learning. Invitations were sent to University students through social media, institutional newsletters and blogs between July and Oct 2020. There were 952 valid survey responses from all eight New Zealand universities, complemented by 20 individual interviews and nine focus groups involving 41 student participants both on and off-shore. Detailed analysis of the data is in process and will be forthcoming in peer reviewed journals. The purpose of this report is to provide a brief overview of high level findings to disseminate to our participants and institutions involved.


In response to COVID-19, Universities had to “go online” suddenly in 2020. We know there is a difference between carefully planned online learning experiences and courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, & Bond, 2020). Students faced multiple demands (many of which persist) in the pandemic context. For example, access to resources, financial hardship, family responsibilities, living circumstances and experience and orientation to learning online.
Despite increasing research on online learning in the pandemic context (Smith Jaggers, 2021), student voice, which we regard as essential to informing good design and facilitation of online learning experiences, is underrepresented in the emergent literature. How teachers teach online, and how students experience and learn online can be poles apart (Forbes & Gedera, 2019), necessitating explicit attention to how students have experienced online teaching and learning. In particular, online students engage and interact with their studies in different ways (Brown, Davis, & Eulatth-Vidal, 2019). This project sought to explore  the perspectives and experiences of New Zealand university students studying online in 2020 to help inform our approach to teaching and learning over the long term.

Summary of results

Most of our survey respondents were female (76%), domestic students (89%) under the age of 24 years (61%). They were studying full-time (87%), on campus (70%) at one of the eight universities in New Zealand at the time of the 2020 lockdowns. A large percentage (89%) of students had either broadband or ultrafast fibre connection for their internet and most used their laptop (95%) for studies. Slightly more than half (53%) of the students did not have any prior online learning experience since three quarters of all respondents were studying on-campus.

On-campus to online transition
Students mostly missed having their classes face to face (24%) where they had more structure (20%) and an opportunity to connect with their friends (17%).

“Being at home is a home environment, where family activities normally take place, not study per se. I do most of my learning on campus, where it is easier to get in the zone. At home there are too many distractions, I normally only do revision at home)”

They did not report missing campus facilities per se but indicated that their study space (61%) influenced their learning experience.

“I found that my study routine was completely disrupted and I lost all motivat[ion] for my studies. When I am able to go into class I find that the environment itself influences my study and losing that was very hard.”

However, this wasn’t the case for everyone 

“..  to be fair i feel more ‘challenged’ when i have to make the 1hr 20min journey into campus. At home i definatly had more time, more fun and a more productive learning space.”

Students were mostly challenged by the demand of a different routine (74%) for learning online, where they had to balance their time and prioritise family commitments (39%).

“everything was very uncertain and a single email could change the trajectory of your entire stay [study] plan”
“felt like i was studying all the time but didn’t know what to study”

Benefits of online learning mode
Though students reported feeling less motivated (65%) and less focused (63%), they became more used to online learning and could leverage the good aspects when they had the right support or knew where to get required support. More than half of the students appreciated not having to travel (53%) and having the flexibility to learn at their own pace and place (50%).

“Personally i felt that the online based learning and tests and exams, more specifically for my law degree was extremely beneficial, i have studied this same paper for the third time and i have never even come close to a B in my exam, online exams helped me because even though they gave us more time and allowed us to see notes, they were still marking ferociously. In other words i realised that this whole time during lockdown i was genuinely focused and studied daily, i knew i had to always be online and even though i would procrastinate here in there i still learnt things, more importantly i became better at learning those things through online based exams.

Useful teacher behaviour – content, communication and facilitation
Students indicated that regular updates (66%) and clear communication (63%) were key aspects of either teacher behaviour or teaching approach that helped them learn online.

“it was good to see lecturers to students/lecturers talking about their daily life before online live lecture starts. This gave a sense of ‘interaction’ rather than being talked at in campus lecture where I usually felt a bit of distance from lectures.”

Students also reported the usefulness of video recordings (61%) as part of their learning materials. 

“The classes that were most helpful were lecturers who continued to give their lecture content via video and then had catchup session to clarify understanding. The ones that were not so helpful were those that relied on delivering content just by powerpoint or  written content as it did allow us to get the personal insights they often add in a face to face session which are most helpful.”

To read more, download a PDF version here.

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